Goal setting 2021: Where do I start?

Usually at the end of the calendar year, we reflect on our successes and challenges and then set goals for the New Year.

After the year we’ve just had, many folks are finding it hard to even consider goal setting for 2021. I don’t know anyone who predicted a global pandemic when goal setting this time last year.

I appreciate the honesty of people who have shared their feelings about leaving 2020 and trying to reconcile setting goals when they’re feeling, well, pessimistic. I’m hearing things that, frankly, resonated with me and others on my team. Things such as:

Is it even worth my time setting goals for 2021 with all the continued uncertainty?

How do I begin setting goals when we can’t predict what’s next?

What do I do with the goals from last year that didn’t happen?

If there’s anything we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that being able to shift our perspectives during challenging times is key.

Yes, it’s been a very difficult year in many ways. But what’s been positive?

We’ve seen leaders adapt and change, shifting teams to working remotely or business operations to online systems. There have been plenty of people who have innovated, organized and rallied. Artists, musicians and actors shared their talent to buoy the spirits of people around the globe.

That got me thinking. During lockdown last spring, one of our blogs that really struck a chord with readers examined what does being productive mean during a pandemic. Many people were feeling pressure to be productive, to accomplish big things and do something more or different or significant and we theorized that perhaps productivity wasn’t actually the right measure.

It’s still important to set goals. It helps us to focus, work towards what matters to us and to prioritize.

But what if goal setting for 2021 isn’t about the typical personal bests and professional successes? Perhaps those aren’t the right sort of goals for heading from a year filled with uncertainty into another year that could be just as unpredictable.

  • What if, instead, our goals are about things like:
  • How we see the world
  • How we live life
  • How we show up to ourselves and others

These are things that matter and can be life-changing, whether Covid-19 is becoming a memory or we’re still in a crisis partway through 2021.

Maybe, just maybe, we as leaders and our team members will benefit from goal setting that gives us a positive mindset.

Psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Shawn Achor has done extensive research on mindset and is considered one of the leading experts on positive psychology for corporate education programs. He’s worked with over a third of the Fortune 100 companies and is highly sought-after as a speaker by organizations around the world.

In his TED talk (one of my favourites), Shawn says: “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, it’s the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time.”

He explains that while many of us believe that if we work harder, we’ll be successful and then we’ll be happy, science shows the opposite is true. The human brain actually works better and we achieve greater success when we’re feeling positive or happy.

Why? The feel-good hormone dopamine that our bodies release when we’re feeling positive doesn’t just make us feel happy. It’s a neurotransmitter that activates the learning centres of the brain. Positivity makes us work harder, smarter and faster.

It’s true: Scientific research confirms there is a happiness advantage. Our brains perform much better — 35% better for those of you who like stats — when positive than when negative, neutral or stressed.

When the brain’s level of positivity is high, we:

  • Are more productive, creative and resilient
  • Have more energy
  • See intelligence rise and accuracy improve

When an organization or team of people improve their positivity, business outcomes that improve include:

  • Employee retention rates (less turnover)
  • Lower burnout rates
  • Improved sales
  • Higher productivity

And the good news is — you can learn to be positive even if you’re feeling pretty pessimistic.

So if goal-setting for 2021 that improves your mindset appeals to you, there are a few things you can do to train your brain to be more positive. These include:

Cultivating gratitude: It might seem difficult or maybe even impossible, but we can develop an attitude of gratitude even when facing uncertainty. Jotting down three new things you’re grateful for each day for 21 days in a row will rewire your brain. Taking just a couple of minutes daily will teach your brain to search for positives before negatives. The result? A more optimistic and happy mindset, which is more successful. And they don’t need to be BIG things — just 3 things you are grateful for.

Keep a gratitude journal: Writing lets us work through things, clarify our thoughts and learn. We’ve said for years that journaling is an important leadership habit. Consciously writing about one of your three positive things lets your brain relive the experience (cue the dopamine!). So jot down your three things and then write a bit about one of them. Why are you grateful for it or them?

Pay it forward: Give other people something positive to think about! Be intentionally kind when you can. This could be acknowledging someone’s hard work, expressing gratitude with a thank you note or treating someone to a meal. Put positivity out into your circles at home, work and community and you’ll reap what you sow.

Make time for mindfulness: Regular readers may remember when we blogged about the benefits of being mindful amid all the busy demands of life. Our brains benefit from rest and meditation; that’s scientifically proven. Try meditating to reduce stress and improve your focus. That link to our mindfulness blog includes a lot of tips and suggestions to help you start.

Get moving: Exercising improves your mood and reduces anxiety. Incorporate regular exercise into your routine to boost your happiness advantage. Start small — maybe a walk around the block to start the day.

Coach’s Questions:

How have your thoughts about goal setting for 2021 shifted? What can you do today to ensure your brain is positive and not negative, neutral or stressed? What goals make you feel more optimistic about 2021? Who else would benefit from this?

Storytelling is the career superpower your clients need to master

Being able to deliver a compelling career story will help jobseekers identify their value and communicate it to employers
Alastair MacFadden

Contemplating a path through an uncertain future can be agonizing. For students and workers, it can be particularly uncomfortable. They are bombarded with information and advice. From the future of work to the impact of COVID-19, the labour market context is noisy.

In the face of uncertainty, many will seek refuge by just getting by; focusing on the short-term horizon and making choices that can undermine their preferred future.

Short-term thinking comes naturally in times of stress. A job applicant might relay the chronology of their resume rather than reveal their ambition or true self. A university student might choose more education over a leap into the job market. The impulse is to survive the immediate threat. It is an instinct that comes at a cost. By avoiding risk, we also foreclose on opportunities.

How can a person shape a career plan in the face of uncertainty? How do you excite strangers about your fit for a new opportunity? How can you become the hero of your own story?

These questions are fundamental for anyone engaged in a career journey. To help a client find their way, an essential superpower involves helping them master their story.

Why storytelling matters
We’ve all overcome difficulties, stumbled and learned. This personal narrative includes the stories we tell ourselves and others. In that sense, they define who we are. (Other leaders in career development have also described the importance of a personal narrative. Lysa Appleton (2018) offers another angle on storytelling in career development based, in part, on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. )

Here’s why storytelling is so powerful in career management:

Our minds are built to share and remember stories. Our physiology drives us to link fragments of information in patterns (Gottschall, 2012). When something is unclear, it is automatic to jump to conclusions, fill in gaps with assumptions and make up stories (or even conspiracies).

Arranging the story arranges the mind. Research has proven that knowing and applying your strengths leads to better engagement, productivity and well-being (Seligman, 2002). Stories integrate emotions, sensations and events into meaning. You can find confidence by exploring patterns and themes that reveal talents and resilience (Dingfelder, 2011).

A personal narrative positions you as the protagonist. When you’re the agent and not the victim of your story, you gain a sense of control and hope for what is still to come (Ibarra and Lineback, 2005). A story forms the context needed for self-compassion. The work of narrative psychology shows that those who find positive meaning in life events express greater life satisfaction.

Storytelling is a way to make sense of our lives. As you arrange the plot points, you highlight what has taken place and frame what is next in your career journey. Turning points gain significance through recall and interpretation, and maturity surfaces as we relate our past to our present and foreshadow possible futures. Your story gives you the words to close one career chapter and begin another.

We communicate and connect through stories. By mastering and then sharing your story, you form relationships with strangers. You can become someone memorable because sharing a multidimensional story creates an associative map across multiple brain regions (Lazarus and Snow, 2018).

There’s value in being able to tell a good story. Good stories transport the audience toward connection. Character-driven stories activate the production of oxytocin in the brain – a hormone associated with feelings of empathy, generosity, trust and co-operation (Zak, 2014). If you want help from others, your story helps them feel they have a stake in your success.

Building a coherent and compelling career story

A random, accidental and incoherent story is a drag. Compelling stories have structure that grabs attention and transports the audience into another world.

A coherent career story also has flow. It identifies plot points and draws connections between them. To help your client explore their story, ask them what has been significant or inspiring in their work life. Try using these questions as a prompt:

  1. As you look back, what are key turning points or events? What are personal experiences that best reflect your strengths, passions and achievement? Describe a time or two when you’ve been happiest in your work – what skills were you using in those moments?
  2. What has been the role of other people in your journey? Who are the mentors, coaches and allies who have influenced you? What advice have you received? What was the impact?
    Next, work with your client to create headlines that capture these critical moments and relationships as the chapters in their career story. Encourage them to craft a vivid, concise description of experiences that are most relevant to the impression they want to leave others about their character and story.

Delivering a story that connects
When someone asks your client, “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself” they are inviting a short story. Converting career chapters into human connection involves linking past experiences with the present and future.

To arrange the chapters and deliver a story that connects, good stories offer a consistent formula:

  • Know your audience. The aim is to share a career story that will resonate with the audience. The client should tailor their narrative to the opportunities they are exploring. Scanning a job ad for keywords, for example, can point to elements of the story that should be emphasized in a cover letter or interview.
  • Start by sharing something that may be surprising, such as a time you embarked on a personal challenge or crossed a career threshold.
  • To sustain attention, build tension by sharing obstacles that have shaped you, such as a crisis or failure or an unusual project. Describe the insights gained, before leading to …
  • The present state – a career crossroads – where you are taking a further step toward your preferred future.
    Over time, each interview and tailored job application will bring the client clarity and a deeper sense of direction as they master their career story.

Anticipating the next chapter
Heroes don’t just endure difficulty and accept their fate. They exercise their strengths to prepare for the future. If a client feels they are preparing for an uncertain future, help them build their story with scenario planning. Have them focus on what is known:

  • Their main talents, gifts and competencies. For example, what patterns are evident in the interests, experiences and life lessons in their career story?
  • Trends shaping the future of their work life. What will be the impact on the client of personal and labour market trends over the next 10 or 20 years? Can they envision multiple futures or scenarios? (E.g. technological change or other trends in their profession, changes within their family or their family status, wider economic or social trends such as access to childcare or eldercare.)
  • Choices in a changing world. How can the client’s talents be deployed in each of the future scenarios they envision? What partnerships or allies will matter? How can their knowledge, skills and attributes best be deployed? Of the tactics that fit each future scenario, which ones appear again and again? Those are the tactics that offer the most robust next steps for any plausible career future, and they should inform the client’s choices and their next chapter.It is worth reminding the client that they are protagonist of their story. By helping them master storytelling, you are helping them gain a superpower that will build their confidence, form relationships and propel their career forward.



Alastair MacFadden is a proud Padraig coaching client and an Executive in Residence at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. He has worked in the non-profit sector and government to advance career development practices and to help individuals reach their full potential.


This article was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of CERIC’s Careering magazine on the theme of “Career Superpowers.”   


Appleton, L. (2018). Storytelling a powerful tool in clients’ career development. CareerWise. careerwise.ceric.ca/2018/11/25/storytelling-a-powerful-tool-in-clients-career-development/

Dingfelder, S. (2011). Our Stories, Ourselves. American Psychological Association. Monitor on Psychology, 41(1). apa.org/monitor/2011/01/stories

Gottschall, J. (2012). The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ibarra, H. and K. Lineback. (2005). What’s Your Story? Harvard Business Review. hbr.org/2005/01/whats-your-story

Lazarus, J. and S. Snow. (2018). The Storytelling EdgeHow to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming Into the Void, and Make People Love You. Wiley.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Simon and Shuster

Zak, P.J. (2014). Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Harvard Business Review. hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling


Is destructive workplace conflict affecting your team?

Every workplace has conflict, every group, every family unit. Conflict is unavoidable wherever there are human relationships.

While we often view conflict as a bad thing, there are actually two types of conflict. It can be either unproductive or productive. Today we’re going to focus on the unproductive kind, and discuss what to do about it (regular readers of our blog may remember us previously describing how to build good conflict because it’s critical to success). If you’re unsure how conflict can be good, be sure to hop over to that blog and then come back here.

Destructive behaviours that create workplace conflict

Some of the most common destructive behaviours in the workplace include:

  • Gossip, whether it’s done in the guise of venting, sharing “concerns” about others or trying to be an authority with inside knowledge
  • Triangulation, where if I’m angry with Bob I tell Simran about it rather than sort things out with Bob and thereby spread my version of events to a third party
  • Sarcasm, which is used in conflict to attack or demean someone while claiming it’s just a joke
  • Stonewalling, which is a strategy to shut down discussion and prevent someone else from doing something we don’t agree with (while feeling gratified, powerful and perhaps even dignified)
  • Exaggerating, which takes someone else’s minor transgression and makes it feel much, much worse to others to solidify our own position

There are many more types of unhealthy behaviours that create unproductive workplace conflict. All of us have go-to reactions when we’re faced with conflict, whether we notice them, or not.

Maybe you don’t gossip, but you know you’ve used words to belittle someone’s job performance when you’re angry. Perhaps you don’t remember stonewalling anyone, but you do regularly assert your authority to overpower team members or dismiss their ideas. Or while you don’t exaggerate issues, you might be hypercritical, find scapegoats or react poorly to criticism.

Sometimes high performers can’t play nice with others but get away with bad behaviours because of their job performance.

As leaders, we need to do better and help our team members move from unproductive conflict to productive conflict.

Studies show that unproductive conflict makes the workplace culture toxic, hinders productivity and creates problems with employee retention.

Earlier this year, Wiley (publisher of DiSC, Five Dysfunctions and so many other business tools) surveyed over 12,000 employees about their experiences with workplace conflict and found:

  • 70% of managers and executives identified that workplace conflict between their employees negatively affected efficiency
  • Managers reported spending an average of 13 hours a month dealing with workplace conflict
  • Two out of every five (or 40% of) respondents said they have left a job specifically because of unhealthy workplace conflict

Why unproductive workplace conflict is so pervasive

We can try to remedy unproductive conflict by having seminars about providing harassment-free workplaces and offering team-building opportunities. Many businesses also have corporate values for everyone to uphold.

But while those initiatives have been around for decades now, toxic workplace conflict is still widespread.

The problem is that many of us have instinctual responses to conflict that are a combination of what we’ve learned and that are innate because of our personality style. Depending on our upbringing and experiences in school and afterward, we may not have learned healthy ways to handle conflict — or how to cope when having to interact with someone who has unhealthy approaches to conflict.

It’s complicated and layered and usually subconscious — we don’t even know why we react the way we do. Additionally, conflict can cause us to react in unexpected ways that are uncharacteristic of how we normally respond or how we want to behave.

Psychology experts describe dozens of ways in which how we respond to conflict has a very different motivation from what we tell ourselves. Here are two common psychological mechanisms for this:

Emotional indulgence: We justify our actions because we have been wronged and need to defend ourselves. However, the negative reactions (ranging from outrage to gossiping or sarcasm) also feel good on some level. Subconsciously, it’s satisfying to feel self-righteous or indulge in some self-pity — and bring others to our side by sharing it in an unhealthy way.

Emotional Avoidance: Some emotions are more difficult than others, like hurt. Sometimes we react in anger when really we’re feeling hurt. This is a common reaction in the workplace when someone faces criticism from a boss or colleague. Even if the criticism is valid, subconsciously there is a need to be angry about something rather than acknowledge the hurt. Anger feels empowering instead of debilitating. Other reactions could be indifference, cynicism or disgust. This leads to behaviours like finger-pointing (it’s not my fault!), causing drama (you think everyone else is better!) or caving in (fine – if that’s what you think then I’m going to do the bare minimum!).

Solving the problem of unproductive workplace conflict

There is a way to combat the negative types of behaviour that we see in workplace relationships. As leaders, we can learn ways to recognize and manage the unconscious, automatic thoughts that are our go-to reactions and then manage them differently.

Our thoughts trigger us to act in certain ways, so if we can catch and reframe our thoughts then we will react with different behaviours. Psychologists call this Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and it’s a scientifically validated method for changing how we behave under various conditions. It starts with mindfulness — being aware of and recognizing our own behaviours and the motivators for them.

Unhealthy thoughts lead to unproductive emotions and behaviours. Conversely, when we consciously seek neutral or positive thoughts, we can regulate our emotions and then choose behaviours.

Here’s how it works:

Pause and recognize our automatic and possibly unhealthy thoughts. We have to practise this at first because unconscious reactions are comfortable and feel right because we’ve always done it this way. It’s important to slow down and reflect. This is when we ask: Is this thought valid or true? Might it not be? Why do I believe it’s valid or true? How else could I look at this?

Reframe the automatic thought. Instead of going with the first thought we have and heading into an auto-pilot reaction, we pause and reframe to something more realistic and productive. For example, we might think she has no idea what she’s doing. After pausing, we can reframe that to: I wonder if she’s seeing something I don’t about this situation? Or, I wonder if her uncertainty is causing her anxiety or fear and she thinks she needs to hide that from me because I won’t be helpful?

Choose a more productive response. Instead of reacting instinctively to something that felt negative, we can choose to react in a way that is more productive. Following the example from point 2, we can ask our coworker if she would like some assistance with this situation, or mention something like, “these issues/topics/problems are challenging. I’ve had some experience with X, can I help?” Or, we could identify that in the past we’ve seen it done this way and notice that she’s doing it that way. We can acknowledge that perhaps her way makes sense and ask why she chose it. We can listen and see if there is a reason why this is the case instead of telling her she’s wrong and causing a conflict. In an example like this we remind ourselves that perhaps we don’t have all the information for the situation, this time. Or, perhaps there’s more than one way to get the job done and ours doesn’t have to be the only way.

When we employ these strategies, we’re using our rational selves to drive responses rather than instincts that could be completely off base. Choosing more productive responses is a skill that requires mindful practice.

How personality plays a part in workplace conflict

Different personality types have certain characteristics that inform how we interact with others and approach things. At Padraig, we find using the DiSC personal assessment tools helps our clients to better understand themselves and their coworkers.

There are different ways we respond to unproductive workplace conflict. Common responses might be:

  • I’m not backing down. I’ll look weak.
  • Let’s not fight. We have to focus on XYZ task, guys!
  • It’s wrong to upset people. Let’s agree to disagree.
  • If I admit I’m wrong, I’ll lose credibility.

There are simple strategies that tackle the bad kind of conflict. Some of our suggestions include shifting forward to how you can change in the future, listening to understand (not to reply!) and really trying to see things from the other person’s perspective.

Once we understand how personality styles affect conflict on our team, we can use the CBT approach to pause, reflect and take a more productive approach to dealing with issues or situations that involve people who come at things in different ways.

If you’re noticing a fair bit of bad conflict on your team, or feeling it yourself, you might consider our Productive Conflict workshop, which can be provided to your group or team in-house or virtually — giving each participant their own personality profile and conflict map along with techniques to use with colleagues when feeling conflict.

Coach’s Questions

What instances of workplace conflict come to mind for you? Were you aware in the moment of things you could have done differently? Did the experience stay with you and bother you beyond that moment? What can you do this week to move unproductive conflict to productive conflict?


Click here for a complimentary ebook


Learn how destructive workplace conflict can affect a team and how to move from unproductive to productive conflict.  Click the image for the complimentary ebook  Under The Hood – The Secret Engine That Drives Destructive Conflict.






Connecting Agility and Emotional Intelligence at work

This past year has demonstrated, more than ever, the need for emotional intelligence at work.

Being able to successfully handle the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of COVID-19 has required agility from leaders and team members.

But it’s not just the pandemic. We’re working today in a marketplace that is ever-changing because of new technology, globalization and fierce competition. Our workplaces are often more diverse now, too, which reshapes how we do business.

What does it look like to be more agile? It could be:

  • Flattening the leadership hierarchy
  • Introducing new approaches to project management
  • Transitioning to new business models (like shifting to remote workers and online business services)
  • Recruiting team members who are flexible and who work well with others

Wiley (publisher of DiSC, Five Dysfunctions and so many other business tools) recently surveyed 2,500 professionals, and researchers found that in 2020:

  • 95% of managers, directors and executives identified that the ability to adapt quickly and easily (agility) is more important to success now than five years ago
  • 90% of those who responded, (whose positions varied from individual contributor to top tier executive), said agility was more integral to their personal success than it was five years ago
To be agile, businesses need people who can handle radical disruption.

Some common examples of radical disruption — aside from the global pandemic — could include:

  • Facing a new competitor with innovative technology or services
  • A major problem with the supply chain
  • Going international and figuring out everything from regulations in another country to tariffs to cultural norms

So how do you find people who can be agile? Perhaps more importantly, how can you help build agility in yourself and your current team members?

The answer is to look for and develop emotional intelligence (EQ).

EQ is more than understanding emotions. It is having the ability to see a situation and understand your own emotional response and the emotional and interpersonal needs of those involved so that you can respond appropriately. When you can do this even when it’s difficult, that’s agility.

Leaders or team members who have developed agility are going to be working offensively, watching out for the next radical disruptor and ready to make decisions or manage change.

These are folks who will make an effort to adapt when needed, even if it feels uncomfortable.

They’re also able to work with people very differently from themselves, whether that is a generational or cultural difference.

Among the qualities we see demonstrated by those with high EQ are core social and emotional strengths such as:

  • Active listening
  • Self-reflection
  • Empathy
  • Objectivity
  • Assertiveness

These kinds of competencies are foundational for successful teamwork and problem-solving. When we’re able to move between confidence and vulnerability and between self-assurance and empathy, for example, or handle change that is thrust upon us, that is the sort of agility that is valuable in today’s ever-changing workplace.

High EQ also shapes the culture of the workplace and how employees experience working there. This is important because low EQ hurts productivity, often correlating with toxic cultures. In the Wiley 2020 survey, more than 40% of respondents said they had quit jobs where they had to work with people who had low EQ.

How to build EQ in the workplace

There are ways to measure our emotional intelligence so that we can figure out where our strengths are and which areas need a little more development. While it’s very valuable to have this kind of insight, we also need to know how to use that theory in practice. Specifically: How can we use EQ to drive organizational success?

The good news is that experts agree — everyone can grow their EQ and develop social and emotional skills.

At Padraig, we use many assessments and guides to help our clients better understand themselves and their team members. The Everything DiSC series of assessments and the EQi2.0 are examples that are valuable because they provide participants with a detailed personalized profile based on their results. From there, we have coaching and group learning programs to help participants learn how to improve their EQ and make the most of existing strengths so that everyone feels empowered to move between mindsets and become more agile.

Coach’s Questions

How would a more agile workforce help your organization? How might agility help you and your home life? When it comes to the volatility and change we all face, what would you most like to feel stronger about, or more sure about?

Click here for a complimentary ebook



Want to learn more about the connection between agility and Emotional Intelligence at work? Click the image for the complimentary ebook  Agility Unlocked.







When is “good enough,” Good Enough?

I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist.

At times I have struggled to let go of something until it’s perfect, spending far too long labouring over every word and number at the expense of my sleep, my sanity and the emotions of those around me.

I beat myself up when I don’t do things as well as I would like, and frankly, there have been times in my professional life when I’ve treated others around me that same way when things weren’t perfect. It’s taken some time for me to understand that there are (many) times that good enough is, well, good enough.

Psychologist Harriet B. Braiker – who interestingly was the first in her field to publicly identify that women experience more and different types of stress than men – said, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”

That really resonated with me.

Excellence is a great goal, right? It’s outstanding or extremely good – whereas perfection is flawless, free of any defects.

Arguably, perfection is unattainable and, often, not even necessary. Expending emotional and physical energy in the pursuit of perfection might not be warranted if excellence is good enough.

I’ve done a lot of work on this over the years, and occasionally my own executive coach and I continue to work on accepting that good enough might be the preferable goal to driving myself (and those around me) crazy.

Leadership and the idea of “good enough”
In the textbook Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others, which I read while studying to become an executive coach, James Flaherty wrote:

The mood of organizations is, for the most part, shaped by the willingness of superiors to be satisfied.

That struck me as quite profound and incredibly accurate.

What do you think? Have you worked for leaders who have upbeat, supportive attitudes toward work done by their team members?

How does it feel to have someone acknowledge that you worked hard on something and applauded the excellent work rather than pointed out a few flaws to show it wasn’t perfect?

When team members feel safe to stretch and learn and grow, they gain confidence. Can you think of any organizations with a “can-do” tone and a culture of growth? Maybe you work somewhere or volunteer at an organization with that kind of culture.

If you’ve witnessed it, I encourage you to think about the leader: Were they willing to be satisfied? This might seem like an odd question but when you think about it, the reaction from someone who seeks perfection could be very different.

Maybe you’re even leading that kind of organization. What sorts of things are you comfortable letting go? What things would you coach your team members to improve? What is required for you to feel satisfied?

Some of us have probably worked, at one time or another, at companies where nothing was good enough or the scrutiny of work submitted felt challenging in a bad way. What’s the mood then? Awkward, angry or unhappy. Was the leader willing to be satisfied?

The best isn’t bad
Now, just to be clear: I’m not suggesting that sometimes we don’t need to strive for perfection.
When I’m traveling, for example, I like to think the pilot flying my plane, or the people at Boeing who built it, are aiming for perfection.

Similarly, I really hope that an anesthesiologist or surgeon is paying close attention to every detail, meticulous in technique and striving to be perfect.

But, how often is perfection necessary? When can we allow ourselves to be satisfied?

In his book, Flaherty also proposed “in our society and current culture, dissatisfaction is sometimes seen as a sign of sophistication or an unwillingness to compromise high standards.”

Can you think of anyone you know who is like that?

I’ve certainly had moments, when I was unwilling to “compromise my standards” while pushing myself and others beyond our abilities. Now, in hindsight, I can see the drawback to that pursuit of perfection instead of good enough.

As leaders, we need to know when to make the call.

Coach’s Questions:

When is good enough, good enough? How do you communicate that to your team? And what will it take for your colleagues to believe you? For your team to believe you? For you to believe you?

Advice for your younger self

How many times in life have you thought, “If I only knew then what I know now?”

When you think about your younger self, what do you remember about starting your career? Try, if you can, to remember how you felt. What was exciting? What did you worry about?

Think about your first “real” rung on the leadership ladder. What were your career expectations? What challenged you? What did you struggle with?

Take a few minutes, close your eyes and try to revisit what your younger self thought and felt. What specific details about your past goals and fears came to mind?

Take a piece of paper and jot down whatever comes to mind. (Pro tip: Keeping a journal to work through exercises like this and process events are proven to make you a better leader.)

Next, after you reflect on those early years, what career advice would you share with your younger self now that you’ve got some more experience? Again, write down what advice you have for your younger self.

When I did this exercise, I realized that:

  • I would remind myself to imagine that everyone around me is wanting to contribute their best – even on days where it doesn’t seem that way.
  • I would encourage myself to look more for jobs with people I admire, and less for jobs with impressive responsibilities.
  • I would tell myself to worry less about ‘getting ahead’ by other people’s measures and more about contributing something to the world that I’ll really be proud of.

After you write out what you’d tell your younger self, I have another question for you: Which advice have you followed or applied to your career?

If you haven’t actually taken your own advice, what stopped you? Could you implement it now?

Perhaps you have actually acted on all the advice you had for your younger self. If that’s the case, well done! But you’re not in the clear just yet.

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, then you’ll know that we strongly advocate that leaders add a COACH Approach to their leadership toolkit to build stronger teams.

The next time you have a team member who isn’t sure what to do with a situation, be curious. Ask them some questions to see if they can figure out what advice they have for themselves.

Many of us want to jump in and offer the solution, but encouraging people to think in this way allows them to be innovative, self-reliant, and engaged. They’ll feel more confident in their abilities and be more accountable for what they decide.

Another tool is to be a mentor – that means sharing your experiences, the good and the bad, the things you know now that you wish you’d known then – and allowing the other person to hear your experience and reflect on it, while deciding what bits they want to use for themselves. Mentoring isn’t telling someone to do this or do that, it’s sharing your own learnings for them to use (or not) as they wish.

Coach’s Questions:

What did you learn about your younger self through this exercise? What did you discover about who you are now as a leader? What would you share from your own experience? Where can you open up about things you’ve learned that were hard to learn? Who might benefit from this?

When high performers can’t play nice with others

The solution for handling a problem employee who is a poor performer might be a no-brainer: You involve HR, document and terminate their employment.

It’s not so easy, however, when you have a very difficult employee who is also one of your high performers. What do you do when someone who is invaluable to your business is also a major pain for everyone else around them?

Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon. Sometimes it’s a certain ego or hubris that makes some talented individuals feel they can act with impunity. Other times, the prima donna mentality emerges after there were no consequences for poor behaviour as long as the superstar brought in revenue or business. And sometimes that high-performer is so focused on delivering the goals they are simply oblivious to how they’re being received by everyone else.

You’ve probably encountered the excuses:

Arrogant grandstander? But driven.

Demanding and never satisfied? Running through admins like water? But creative and innovative.

Uncooperative and insensitive to others on the team? But one of the best in the field.

Prone to outbursts and verbal abuse so that everyone is walking on eggshells? But always lands the big clients.

Managing high performers who can’t play nice with others can be a nightmare. Dealing with the fallout of their actions and their high maintenance ways can quickly monopolize your time as their leader. Odds are that many of these personalities are also the first to challenge your authority or undermine your decisions, which further complicates your role as it steals your time and attention away from other matters.

Here are some strategies leaders can use when their top talent’s intellect and ability is also a liability:

Have the difficult conversation. Sure, someone who is really bright ought to realize when they’re continually creating drama or upsetting others but if you as their manager don’t say anything, they can plead either ignorance or argue that they’ve never been corrected for it. The first step is for you to make that high performer know that while you value their contribution(s), that X or Y is ALSO part of the job and it’s something they need to work on. (Pro tip: Prepare for this difficult conversation carefully – read our tips and use our worksheet for having a difficult conversation remotely or otherwise.) Pay careful attention to how willing this top performer is to acknowledge first, that there is an area in which they could improve and second, how willing they are to take you up on support to do that. Remember, if this is truly your first conversation about the problem, they may need time to digest.

Draw some really firm boundaries. A large accounting firm in one of Canada’s northern territories had a very bright, very senior accountant with a very niche specialty who gained quite a reputation for his nasty demeanor with everyone from admin assistants and reception to clients — and the leadership team based elsewhere made excuses because he was a rare talent (and kept hiring new admins to deal with him!). As leaders, we have to decide what we absolutely will not tolerate. How many harassment complaints are too many? How many rude interactions are unacceptable? What’s the baseline of courtesy that should be extended to clients, colleagues and others? What sort of insulting behaviour should result in someone being asked to leave a team meeting? Give some thought to that, jot down some notes and make sure that the high performer is told that X, Y and Z cannot continue to happen — and then follow through. Sometimes people push when they think the boundaries exist only for others, and not for them. 

Be confident in your authority. As the leader, you can’t let a difficult personality rattle you. Stay calm and grounded no matter how they behave. That’s easier said than done but you might want to have a confidential discussion with a peer who has been through this before, or talk to a certified executive coach (whose conversations are always confidential). When talking to the problem employee, if they try to distract you from the issue, redirect the conversation. If they rant and rage, say that you’ll take the discussion up again when they’ve calmed down and then end the meeting (for now!). Trust in your executive presence and remember most of all why you’re doing this — to save the full team and to prevent the long-term losses that occur when a high performer with poor connection is allowed to continue. Remember that others on your team (whether they have told you, or not) will admire you addressing the problem and appreciate that you are reining in the high performer who gets out of control. Pro tip: it also might prevent some problems down the line when others realize you’re not a boss who can be bullied or walked on.

Be consistent going forward. If issues arise, deal with them right away, with a face-to-face conversation ideally (or video teleconference if necessary during the pandemic). Focus on the issue, not the person, and raise any ongoing issues for discussion. “Remember we talked about collaborating with marketing? There seems to be more tension.” Conversely, if you notice a concerted effort to change, make a point of sharing that you see and appreciate the progress. 

Assign projects carefully. Some high performers do best when they have a really challenging project to undertake that requires them to stretch — it’s when they’re bored that they stir up drama and get prickly. Then there are those who like a challenge, but lose those grace-filled interpersonal skills under pressure — so team projects may not be the best decision. Assess what’s going on and figure out how to mitigate any potential fallout based on what you’ve seen in the past.

Make sure performance reviews always document the good — and the bad. Too often the trouble areas are overlooked for superstars, which isn’t fair to them really (and it will be even more difficult if you eventually decide that you do need to build a case to terminate a talented troublemaker). In a situation where there are challenges, it’s important to review and provide feedback more frequently, perhaps even monthly or every quarter until you see a better long-term outcome emerging.

Be strategic with incentives. I remember hearing about one rock star asset manager who upset everyone around him constantly. He said things like, “My whole life I’ve been on winning teams, but I’m always the captain.” Any hint of an individual reward or bonus made him even more ruthless. The solution? An astute manager ensured that bonuses were structured for team achievements based on some 360-degree feedback.

Help to support the changes you want to see. You can find a good mentor for a superstar who is a little rough around the edges. This takes a bit of matchmaking ability, because it has to be the right fit, but when it works it can be life-changing. Alternately, consider whether there are any professional development opportunities for this member of your team that could help to boost the (usually softer) skills you want to see. Working with a coach, of course, can be helpful.  As well, launching the coaching with an emotional intelligence assessment tool can be eye-opening for the person. Build time into your schedule to meet regularly with this challenging high performer one-to-one so that they feel they have your attention and support.

Now, the big question is: When do you cut your losses?

Sometimes, no matter how much we as leaders work with someone, they aren’t willing to change. This is a much bigger problem than someone who needs support and mentoring or coaching to change.

You might ultimately decide that no matter how talented someone is, there are too many drawbacks — particularly in today’s world of remote work because we can recruit talent from anywhere around the globe. In some situations, you might conclude that it’s very well worth recruiting a slightly less talented or capable replacement who is a lot nicer to be around.

Making that decision may take some time. It might require that the leaders or the board members you report to need to buy-in to the idea (which is why careful documentation is important from the get-go).

If this is a real possibility, then be sure to reference that in the next Essential Conversation you have with the person (in the part where you state what is at stake).

Coach’s Questions:

Who do you know who fits the description of the very talented difficult employee? What has held you back from dealing with the situation? Given what we’ve offered, what will you do going forward? 


How to have difficult conversations remotely with your team

As leaders, we encounter all kinds of situations where we need to have difficult conversations with team members. It’s not easy at the best of times, but it’s even harder to have difficult conversations remotely. 

With more people than ever working from home thanks to the worldwide pandemic, many leaders are trying to figure out how to have an uncomfortable discussion when you can’t sit across the table from someone. 

Regular readers of this blog may remember that we shared strategies for turning difficult conversations into essential conversations. It helps to approach each situation with a more positive mindset than dread!

Here’s how to have a difficult conversation remotely:

Prepare to confront tough issues with courage, compassion and skill. 

It’s always better to start a conversation like this when you’ve taken time to prepare so that things don’t go wildly off track. Having an opening statement that names the issue (and gives an example of the behaviour or situation that needs to change), describes the effect this has and what’s at stake is important. So is acknowledging your own contribution to this situation, describing an ideal outcome and then giving the team member you’re talking with time to respond. 

That sounds like a lot but we created a free downloadable to help you prepare for having an essential conversation. It covers each step to PREPARE for the essential conversation (and these are the same steps to use to OPEN the conversation with your employee or peer). As a bonus, we cover some mistakes we see over and over again when clients practice this model — so you can avoid making these common errors.

Don’t delay having a difficult conversation.

It’s never easy to talk with someone about performance issues, and perhaps even more so when we know we ourselves and many of our team members have had a challenging few months. Being able to articulate your concerns with specific examples is important so the focus is on the issue or behaviour and not the person:

“I notice that you’ve missed the morning meeting the last three times” rather than, “You’re ignoring our regular morning meetings”

“There seems to be some tension between you and Sam in finance” rather than, “You’re always short-tempered and rude to Sam”

“Your contribution to the last few reports was not as detailed as required” rather than, “The quality of your work on the last few reports was substandard”

We’ve talked before about how to have performance conversations before things are completely derailed (that’s not fair to anyone!) or fester and erupt. When leaders are prepared and use a problem-solving approach, it can be much easier to approach job performance concerns objectively and with empathy. 

Check your assumptions before you have the conversation.

Sometimes we hold beliefs or make decisions about people or situations without even realizing that we’re assuming things to be true that maybe are not. We often make assumptions about the other person before we even start talking.

When we offer leadership workshops, our Ladder of Assumptions exercise always surprises and impresses participants. It’s a short activity that helps folks realize how each of us might say or think something or behave a certain way because of things we believe or have experienced that can then influence how the other person responds. (Pro tip: Click through to that blog post and you’ll find the free worksheet we created to walk through the ladder exercise before you undertake an essential conversation.)

Always have an essential conversation face-to-face.

Sure, it can feel really awkward and you might be tempted to just send a quick text message or email instead. Don’t! It’s very difficult to manage tone and intention in writing. 

A video call is the next-best-thing to meeting in person if you have to have a difficult conversation remotely. Failing that, a phone call at least allows you to communicate your tone — but if you can’t see each other then you’ll have to really make certain that you don’t sound as though you’re reprimanding but rather that you’re looking to resolve an issue and provide resources or support as needed. 

Pick a mutually convenient time.

The end of a long and stressful work week is probably not the best time to have a heartfelt discussion that could result in hard feelings! Similarly, some people aren’t morning people. These days, remote workers may well be juggling childcare or caring for elderly families while working from home. 

Ask the other person what timing works for them (accommodating time zone differences so you’re the one up extra early or working a little later if applicable) and give them a bit of information about what you need to discuss with them so they don’t feel completely blindsided. 

Focus on resolving the issue.

If you follow our guide to Essential Conversations you’ll see that the last step is “Invite Your Partner to Respond.” That’s because our guide walks you through preparing for the conversation and introducing the conversation in a way that sets a good tone and outlines everything that needs to be discussed. We can’t presume where the conversation will then go (see the Ladder of Assumptions paragraph above). So, once you’ve opened the conversation, outlined your concerns, provided an example and stated what’s at stake, give the peer or team member you’re talking with the opportunity to share what they think about the issue. 

If you’re one of our regular readers, you’ll know this point in the conversation is a time to listen with the intent to understand (not to respond!). When people feel seen, heard and understood, they’re less likely to get angry and defensive. 

It’s much better to have a heartfelt conversation than a fight over who is right. To do that, be curious about what the root cause for the behaviour or issue is and pay careful attention to body language because there could be stressors that you weren’t aware were a factor. What resources, supports or changes could help change what’s happening for the better? Ask for help to understand what’s happening and clarify what you’re hearing to make sure you’re both on the same page.

Keep the conversation on track if required.

Despite your best efforts and careful preparation, the conversation might take some unexpected detours. Different personalities deal with perceived criticism in different ways, so you may encounter some hostility, some deflection or some red herrings. 

Take the time you need to bring the conversation back to the main issue and re-focus as required on finding a solution. Work to keep frustration, anger and annoyance in check. You can suggest discussing other topics another day or point out when you’re getting off topic. Asking questions can also help you keep the conversation on task. 

Schedule a follow-up.

Having this essential conversation is just the first step in resolving the issue. It’s a big mistake many of us have made: to breathe a sigh of relief after this awkward and difficult conversation is over and then assume it’s all taken care of going forward. You’re not done yet! The next step is to follow up to discuss whether things are improving or if there’s a need for more support or action. 

You can check in casually to see how things are going, but it’s also good to re-assess things with a scheduled conversation before too much time elapses. This way, it’s clear that your expectation is that things are going to get better.

Coach’s Questions

What is the biggest challenge for you with having difficult conversations? What can you do differently or better to prepare for an essential conversation? What steps could make having a difficult conversation remotely better for you and the other person? What conversation needs to be had?


Return to Work anxiety: How leaders cope

Return to work anxiety is not unexpected, given the ongoing uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus, increased outbreaks in some areas of the globe and the financial strain faced by many. 

We’ve talked about how leaders can help their team members transition back to work, but it’s not necessarily any easier on those of us in leadership roles.

As I mentioned in our previous blog, last week I surveyed readers and clients about what kind of leadership challenges they’re facing currently and we got an overwhelming number of responses. 

One takeaway from our survey is that many leaders are feeling caught between what their own leaders want and what their staff want. Many of you shared that you’re not feeling comfortable returning to work right now, but are tasked with bringing your teams (who are anxious and apprehensive!) back into the office and we shared with you what one of our readers told us of their situation.

Logistical planning isn’t a guarantee

Return to work anxiety is exacerbated by the unknowns. We’re putting measures in place to keep people as healthy as we can, but then we see that reopening in some areas has resulted in increased outbreak numbers and a return to lockdown measures.

Psychological strain is perhaps the one constant throughout this pandemic. If it’s not worrying about your health or the health of those you care about, it’s figuring out how to cope with social isolation and managing grief and anxiety. Compounding all of that distress is the unknown.  How long will this last? Will there be another wave? 

It’s important to take care of your own mental health and anxiety as you lead others through this challenging time. Here are some strategies to help leaders cope:

Check how you’re feeling a couple of times a day

Stress and anxiety manifest in each of us in physical ways. When you’re distressed, how do you react? It might be that you feel unease in your gut, your chest goes tight, you breathe rapidly and shallowly, you get knots in your neck or back or you feel the tell-tale pressure in your head of an impending migraine. Stress and anxiety are normal, physical responses to the body’s alarm system — but we need healthy ways to cope with them and noticing when they are occurring is a key first step.

If you take a few minutes morning, noon and night to quickly assess how you’re feeling physically, you can then identify if you’re holding tension and worry in your body. If you can, close your eyes for a moment and mentally walk through your muscles and body from head to toe. Clenching your jaw? Relax your facial muscles. Muscles taut? Stretch and do some deep breathing. Stomach upset? Meditate and calm yourself with some yoga or rock out to some loud tunes to release that nervous energy. When we can counter the physical symptoms, we also help to alleviate the emotional anxiety. 

Focus on what you can control

It’s really hard not to think about the worst-case scenarios as you lead your team after the initial crisis (especially when you’re the one in charge of planning for the worst and hoping for the best!). Many of you probably have team members who share their worst fears, so if you were more optimistic you’ve got some doubts now, too.

When dealing with a crisis, it’s hard not to worry about the worst that could happen. But it doesn’t have to be either the best or the worst, it could be (and likely will be) somewhere in the middle. 

It’s helpful to focus on what we CAN control rather than what we don’t know. First, of course, follow your federal and local public health advisories and stay abreast of their latest evidence-based recommendations. Different stages of reopening call for different guidelines and limitations.

But you can also work on other things in your control. Your company wants people in the office? Perhaps you can control how many at once, or alternate days. Does your boss want people back so you’re able to serve the public? Then maybe frontline staff with plexiglass dividers will fill the need without everyone coming back at once.

And, while we can’t ensure no one will get exposed to this virus, we can wash our hands and remind staff to do this regularly — BIG signs on the back of the bathroom door, emails every once in a while, supply hand sanitizer bottles all over the office — perhaps one for every staff member working — adapt the seats in the break room so that people can gather and talk but still stay 2m apart, and offer masks and face shields for those who have to come in.

And remember: If you don’t know the answer right away, that’s okay. You can reach out to someone with expertise and get advice, then report back to your team members. Staff regularly report in surveys that they have much greater appreciation and admiration for a boss who says, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” (and then, does) vs. a boss who offers up their best guess or ignores a query.

You can’t control everything, but you can control how you react

It’s possible you’ll encounter folks at work who don’t feel the same anxiety about being back — maybe even your boss(es). Just as you need strategies for teams returning to work, you also need strategies for things that will help you feel safe. 

Some other things that may help you feel more in control could include keeping hand sanitizer in your pocket, bag and desk. You could set up hand sanitizing stations for guests and have disposable masks ready for visitors or clients who don’t have their own. If you encounter someone like a client or a boss who won’t wear a mask, you can be prepared to either excuse yourself or find out ahead of time which room has windows that open or that allows for adequate social distancing (or take the meeting outdoors!).

As a leader, you could implement other policies to help you and your team feel safer in the office. We’ve heard that some workplaces have established “zones” for visitors and “zones” for employees only. Some other workplaces require staff members bring their lunches with them so there isn’t increased exposure from people coming and going from the office to eat out or pick up food during the day. Now is the time for us as leaders to recognize our own concerns, learn what concerns our staff members have and then raise these with senior leaders, sharing them with diplomacy and empathy.

Minimize other outside stresses when possible

It sounds simplistic, but returning to work is already stressful so do what you can to make other aspects of your day a little calmer. 

Make sure you get adequate sleep on work nights (say no to Netflix!) and get up early enough that you’re not rushing out the door. Get into the habit of packing your lunch and having everything ready for the morning before you head to bed so that you don’t waste time searching for clean socks or the work file you absolutely have to bring to work.

Some folks also choose to listen to an uplifting podcast or soothing music during their commute to work rather than listening to the news. 

Find things to look forward to

It’s not easy to have an attitude of gratitude during a pandemic or crisis, but it is possible. Make sure that your schedule includes things that make you feel happy. 

This can be simple — like breakfast with your partner, walking the dog or calling a good friend to chat. It could be a weekly massage or daily workout. What’s important is that it’s something you do that is for YOU and not for anyone else. Maybe it’s as simple as getting up a bit early to savour that first cup of coffee with no one bothering you, or puttering in the garage on Saturday. Self-care is time to recharge and put your well-being first.

Some experts suggest that if you’ve developed new routines during lockdown, like cooking an elaborate meal or doing yoga or playing video games, that you continue this in some way after you return to work because there is comfort in routine.

Reach out if you need support

While we know the terrible effect that this pandemic can have on people’s physical health, the United Nations warned that it also has the potential to create a “major mental health crisis” as people face anxiety after anxiety. 

As leaders, we need to be mindful of our own emotional health and mental well-being. If you are feeling overwhelmed or suffer from chronic insomnia or anxiety, reach out to mental health professionals through your employee assistance program or extended health benefits. The Government of Canada has created a fantastic portal with mental health resources you can use anonymously and I’ve found a number of them to be quite helpful.  Click here to access them. (And if you’re not in Canada, you can still access the resources).  As well, most Canadian provinces have provided some programs too and you can access those here.

If you need help as a leader right now, please reach out to us at Padraig. We’ve created a quick, short and less expensive coaching package for immediate assistance. Instead of our usual starting package of 12 sessions over six months, we’re offering help right now at a special rate for 3 hour long conversations with one of our executive coaches — it’s private, confidential and personalized. We want to help.

Coach’s Questions

How are you feeling about the return to work? What can you address and what is out of your control? What can you do better or differently to protect your own mental health and physical health right now?


How to gauge your employee anxiety about returning to work

Returning to work after months at home is unsettling for almost everyone, but how do you evaluate employee anxiety?

It’s important for us, as leaders, to figure out who is okay (yay, I get to leave the kids home with their Dad!), who is a bit apprehensive (are we going to be properly socially distanced and wear masks at all times?) and who is really struggling (I can’t trust the HVAC in here isn’t going to spread contamination and my partner is fighting cancer and immuno-compromised and I still don’t know what we’re going to do with the kids).

Why does it matter? Serious employee anxiety, left unchecked, can result in:

  • Increased sick time
  • Decreased productivity
  • Decreased employee morale
  • Poor performance

Employees who are really worried have every right to reach out to Human Resources, Occupational Health & Safety, an Employee Wellness Program or their union leaders. But, this is one of those times where we, as leaders, can get ahead of the curve by assessing employee anxiety before it escalates and fears ripple through the office. 

Caught in the middle?

I did a survey with people last week about leadership challenges to help me prepare for an upcoming Padraig project and I got a LOT of responses. Shockingly so. (Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us!)  

Many readers and clients who answered the survey questions are managers who report to a CEO or director. The common theme is that these leaders feel caught between what their own leaders want and what their staff want.

This is one reply that summarized this situation very well:

I find it very difficult to support the need to return to the office with my team who is very nervous about COVID and being in the workplace with large numbers of people, especially when I do not personally see the value in returning and am extremely anxious myself.

It is difficult to rationalize this to my team when our leaders cannot rationalize this for me. Productivity has increased during the work from home period, as have physical and mental wellness. Returning to the workplace seems like more risk than its worth. How do I support this move?


This is a situation where having individual conversations with your team members will give you concrete information to bring to your boss(es) for consideration. They may not realize what kinds of things people are worried about. Having specific examples to share may help you gain ground with your boss and figure out solutions that work for everyone. It may also help you to share your own apprehension a little more candidly as you advocate for your team members. This is an important time to be willing to speak truth to power telling your boss what you’re hearing and what concerns you and sharing it both diplomatically and empathetically.

Make time to have conversations

Don’t panic if you skipped psychology courses during your university years. You’re going to assess how people are feeling by talking with them, one-to-one. Do not cheat and send out emails, ask at a group meeting or issue an online survey.

It’s important to check-in with everyone on your team individually because you can see their facial expressions and observe their body language, which will give you clues to how candidly they’re sharing how they really feel. And, of course, they will hopefully feel more comfortable sharing, if you are talking one-to-one. If you’re assessing how they’re doing, before you move back to the office (good for you!) you can do this by video call.

Talking with your direct reports and team members individually gives you the opportunity to show empathy and vulnerability by acknowledging to them that you, too, had some reservations about calling everyone back into work when there is still so much uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees respond favorably when they feel leaders genuinely care about them, understand them and are interested in what they think.

It will also be important to let them know the conversation is confidential.  Let them know you may share topics without names (if that’s the case) with your boss or your leadership peers, or whomever.  But be clear that their personal concern will remain between the two of you unless they share it with others.

Listen with intent

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you know that the coaches on my team and I quote management guru Stephen R. Covey when we talk about listening: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

This is a time that you want to ask questions and then listen with the intent to understand. This is not your time to fill in the blanks or suggest to people what you think (so that they mirror your words) and it’s not a time to share all the anxiety and uncertainty in your own life. The classic, “oh, I know how you’re feeling! My life is like this and my home situation is like that and…and…and…” has no place in this conversation.  

Gauge employee anxiety

When you meet with folks, here are some of the types of questions you can ask to help you gauge employee anxiety:

  • How did you find working from home? 
  • How are you feeling about coming back into the office?
  • Depending how they respond (I’m fine, I’m scared, I’m worried, I’m frustrated) you can use that to dive deeper. Such as: I’m glad to hear you’re fine what are you most looking forward to? And, what could we do to make it feel even better? Or, tell me a bit more about that what are you most afraid of? Worried about? Frustrated by?

These open-ended questions will help you to glean information to figure out what is weighing on the minds of your team members, particularly if you allow silence into the conversations instead of filling in the gaps with your own thoughts (which is tempting but wait and hear what people have to say). 

Some answers might be predictable things like worrying about social distancing, flexibility if someone at home gets sick or what happens if there is a second wave. But some of the other answers you get might be surprising.

You might uncover concerns that you would never have guessed otherwise. Maybe Jane in accounting is sleepless worrying that she’s going to have children home learning again in the fall and doesn’t know how to ask if she can keep working remotely. Perhaps Ivan in marketing takes the bus to work and is concerned he could get COVID because he commutes.

Don’t be afraid to take notes, which shows that what your team members are worrying about really does matter to you. (If you do take notes, however, you’ll want to again discuss confidentiality with them.) Keeping notes also ensures you can do some research and follow up with ways to address and allay the specific fears of the people who work for you.

Obviously, if you know who might need to work from home that will help you plan how to phase people for the return to work and develop contingency planning for any future outbreaks (these folks love working from home, these folks would rather work in the office). And if you know what challenges people had working from home, then you’ll also know how to make working from home better than just okay and then you can get everyone prepared and ready for a much smoother transition should it arise this time. 

After you have assessed concerns, go back to individuals to talk about how you can address them. This will help to mitigate employee anxiety, increase loyalty and earn plenty of goodwill. 

Coach’s Questions

What’s your sense of how people on your team feel about returning to work? What can you do differently or better with one-to-one conversations to gauge employee anxiety? How will answers inform your planning?